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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 405

Sending telegrams was formerly a very fast method of communication. Using telegraph offices in stores, people paid clerks to type and transmit their messages. In the Cage is concerned with one such office, located in London; the its protagonist is a young woman who sends telegrams, working within a “cage”...

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Sending telegrams was formerly a very fast method of communication. Using telegraph offices in stores, people paid clerks to type and transmit their messages. In the Cage is concerned with one such office, located in London; the its protagonist is a young woman who sends telegrams, working within a “cage” or enclosure. As she sees people coming and going, all far wealthier than she is, she speculates about their lives. Reading the messages that they send, she also gains some understanding of their affairs—but not, as it turns out, as much as she imagines.

This young woman, who remains an unnamed protagonist, has become engaged to a former coworker, Mr. Mudge; he has gotten a promotion and transfer, and he is encouraging her to move and marry him so they can begin their life together. She cannot muster much enthusiasm, however; Mudge seems very dull to her and she is not eager to leave the city.

Two other characters are people who catch the young clerk’s fancy: Lady Bradeen and Captain Everard. First the elegant woman frequents the telegraph office, sending frequent wires. Then the captain arrives, after a period of living on the Continent. The clerk is immediately impressed by his good looks and elegant bearing. These two customers do not utilize the office at the same time but do sometimes send telegrams to each other. Increasingly intrigued by the handsome captain, the clerk begins to fantasize about what a life would be like with him compared to the secure marriage to Mudge. One day when she is emboldened to seek the captain out at his residence, they sit outside and converse on a bench. Encouraged by what she takes as his interest in her, she postpones her wedding.

Back at the office, Everard asks her for information on a wire that Lady Bradeen has sent some time earlier, and, breaking all the rules of confidentiality, the clerk reveals its contents. Relieved at what he hears, he leaves—the last time she sees him. Some time later, via a coworker, she hears the news of their engagement, as well as the related gossip. Everard, far from a wealthy elite, was a social climber who has manipulated the titled woman into marriage. Far from being privy to her customers’ secrets, the clerk has not only been used by one of them but is far out of the loop when it comes to gossip.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1051

The protagonist of “In the Cage” is a young woman whose identity is never revealed by Henry James, thus reinforcing the very anonymity of her status in life: She works in the post-and-telegraph cage of Cocker’s store in the Mayfair section of West London. From the outset, James makes clear two facts about her personal life. First, she has grown up and still lives in relative poverty. As a consequence, she does not look kindly on the many idle rich who come to Cocker’s day after day to send telegrams.

Second, she is engaged to a grocer named Mr. Mudge. He is a most caring, decent man; he is, however, also dull and pedestrian. She does not encourage him as he sets forth tentative wedding plans. The principal reason for her reluctance to marry has to do with her fascination with the upper-class patrons of Cocker’s. For some time she has carried on a love/hate affair with them—in her mind. She knows that these privileged people are boring and profligate, and often engage in illicit liaisons. Although she has confided to a friend that she sees them as “selfish brutes,” she is driven by a genuine fascination with them. Like many of James’s characters, she is an inquisitive person: She has to know what is going on in their lives. When she waits on them, she sharply scrutinizes them; she carefully listens to their conversations; and she quickly memorizes their telegrams. From these gleanings, her hyperactive imagination is quite capable of rendering for her in most dramatic fashion their current anxieties, intrigues, and crises.

When she encounters at Cocker’s a Captain Count Philip Everard, a smiling, handsome aristocrat, she makes a quantum leap from simply immersing her acute imagination in the affairs of her wealthy clientele to becoming a part of their lives. From the beginning, she understands that he is what she has been waiting for. (In an ancillary way she is also caught up in the life of a patron named Lady Bradeen, who has some kind of shadowy connection with Everard, although her eventual single focus will be on him.) Not only can she re-create Everard’s romantic life with all of its selfishness and immoral behavior, but now—from her modest position as telegraphist—she also will be able to do him eager service in whatever humble way she can. Her imagination wills her to believe that Everard needs her, depends on her advice, and is singularly attracted to her.

“In the Cage” moves toward its climax when the protagonist wants to expand her connection with the captain beyond the confines of Cocker’s. To that end, she begins to haunt his residence, the exclusive Park Chambers, during her off-hours. They meet early one evening, and he invites her to sit on a nearby park bench. In vintage Jamesian dialogue, her speeches to him assume all that she has assumed these many months: to inform him that theirs is a passionate and reciprocal relationship. Everard, in his turn, apparently has only one purpose in asking her to sit with him in the August twilight: to tell her that as a public servant she is greatly appreciated for all of her favors to him as a patron of Cocker’s.

He is perplexed when she announces that she may be induced to move on (this is a reference to Mudge and the wedding plans). Startled by the news, Everard selfishly cries out that he will be upset if she goes: “I shall miss you too horribly.” Taking his hyperbolic rhetoric at face value, she leaves Everard with a stern warning that she will not give him up. Later that summer, while on vacation at Bournemouth with Mudge and her mother, she advises Mudge that her duty now is to stay at Cocker’s, to go on assisting her captain in his dalliances.

Weeks later, a troubled Everard comes to Mudge’s betrothed and asks about a particular telegram that Lady Bradeen had sent earlier in the year. James does not explain why Everard is upset, but when the telegraphist is able to recite the contents from memory, Everard is relieved inasmuch as Lady Bradeen has sent the wrong message. The crisis is over. Everard departs without a gesture or word of thanks or good-bye. She never sees him again.

Once more, weeks go by and the telegraphist is chatting with a friend of hers, a Mrs. Jordan, who is a widow but is soon to be married to a Mr. Drake. He is a servant of Lady Bradeen, and Drake tells Mrs. Jordan that Everard and Lady Bradeen will also be marrying soon. Mrs. Jordan is unable to supply pertinent details, but several facts emerge from her conversation with the telegraphist: Everard is not wealthy; he is a philanderer and a fortune hunter; Lady Bradeen once went so far as to steal something in order to protect him; and, finally, Mrs. Jordan concludes that Everard is wedding Lady Bradeen because she has the power to coerce him into marriage.

“In the Cage” ends with the disillusioned telegraphist ready to take Mudge up on his offer of marriage—as soon as possible. Further, she is perturbed at having to hear all this scandalous news from Drake through Mrs. Jordan. The protagonist has long seen herself as being a principal source of reliable information on the doings of the Everard-Bradeen set. Mudge’s betrothed thinks of the disturbing description of Everard by the future Mrs. Drake. It reinforces in a most succinct way what the telegraphist has known all along. No longer can she idealize him; she can see him now with merciless clarity for what he is: unscrupulous, selfish, and materialistic. There is no shatteringly powerful scene as the protagonist comes to terms with Everard and her association with him—both the imagined and the real. After she bids good-bye to Mrs. Jordan, she walks alone along the Paddington canal. James writes that her mind is jumbled with thoughts. Knowing, however, that her obsession with Everard is over and that marriage to Mudge is inevitable, the telegraphist curiously muses on one aspect of all that has happened: “It was strange that such a matter should be settled for her by Mr. Drake.”

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